Last season the Lakers became the first team in NBA history to win three seven-game series en route to a title. This year they have won a record 11 consecutive playoff games, against Portland, Seattle and the Suns—16 wins in a row if you count their five at the end of the regular season—and they appear to be peaking at precisely the right moment.
The L.A. bench, which performed erratically all season, came alive during the Phoenix series. Cooper helped win Game 2 (101-95) by smothering Kevin Johnson, the Suns' explosive point guard, from baseline to baseline after Johnson had rung up 18 points and six assists in the first half; Cooper came back on Friday to hit four straight three-pointers in Game 3. Thompson also helped put Phoenix away in that game with five free throws in the final 2:25, while the Lakers were clinging to a dwindling lead. But the sight that no doubt quickened the hearts of the Laker faithful most was forward Orlando Woolridge finally looking as if he fit in.
Woolridge, who became a free agent after going through drug rehab while playing for New Jersey last season, had never really found his place on the Lakers. L.A. coach Pat Riley had kept him on the bench for four games in a five-game span in early April. "I think that was a message," Woolridge says. "So I took an inventory of myself and my game to see what I needed to change. It took me a long time to learn to do the intangible things that help a team win."
Woolridge didn't begin to click until the waning moments of Game 1, after the Suns had drawn to within five points with two minutes to play. After a missed shot, Woolridge knifed through the lane, took a pass from Thompson, rammed in a dunk and made a free throw to help salt away a 127-119 victory. "He went from being a home run hitter to a guy who will take a walk, go for a single," said Riley. When Woolridge came up with 10 points, five rebounds, and three blocked shots while logging 14 minutes in Game 2, Riley acknowledged that Woolridge was the difference. "We were dead in the mud offensively, and Orlando gave us some life," he said. "Without him we don't win."
Cooper insisted last week that "for this team now, Showtime happens on defense," and, indeed, the Lakers were almost insufferably pleased with themselves to be leading the way into this brave (and slightly boring) new world. Riley had his two assistants, Bill Bertka and Randy Pfund, looking at videotape into the wee hours every morning, breaking down the Suns' offense, looking for ways to refine the Laker defense. Through the conference finals, Laker opponents averaged a combined 104.5 points per game.
The Laker D that accomplished this looked a lot like a zone. Zones are still not legal in the NBA, of course, so Fitzsimmons and his two assistant coaches spent a lot of time complaining to the refs. But in fact the Lakers were simply matching the Suns' 1-2-2 formation with one of their own. The primary victims of all this defensive subterfuge were Sun forward Eddie Johnson, winner of the league's Sixth Man Award, and Kevin Johnson, recently named the NBA's most improved player. "They basically stopped us," said Eddie Johnson, who averaged 22.4 points a game against the Lakers in the regular season—the teams split six games—and then shot .328 in the series, averaging 11.5 points.
As for Kevin Johnson, Riley had rookie David Rivers imitate him in Laker practices, and he charged Cooper with the task of stopping KJ. By the end of the week, Cooper could barely walk. "I have calluses building up to my ankles," he said. For long stretches of the second and third games, though, Cooper simply made Johnson disappear.
The usually exuberant KJ was so drained just getting ready for the Lakers that he rarely had much left for the actual games. For days he carried around notes on how to defend Scott, and the pressure weighed on him. "We're expending a lot of energy, not on the court but in approaching these games," Johnson said. "It's taking a lot out of us. But for the Lakers it's a way of life."
After breaking loose repeatedly in the first half of Game 2, KJ was apparently so tired that he didn't go out onto the floor with his teammates before the third quarter, but sat in the Suns' locker room until the horn sounded. "That was a shock to all of us," Fitzsimmons said. "I have never seen Kevin play with less energy than he did in the second half of that game. I think it was all psychological." Johnson missed the only two shots he took in the second half, and finished with four points and seven turnovers after intermission. "By the second half, I'd had it, I was dead," he said later. With the Suns' two Johnsons off their games, forward Tom Chambers was able to find little operating room inside and shot only .364 in the first three games before erupting for 41 points in Game 4.
It was a particularly galling way to end the season for Fitzsimmons, who was named Coach of the Year in the midst of his team's collapse last week. Fitzsimmons-coached teams have not won at the Forum since Feb. 17, 1974, a period covering 35 games, 15 seasons and five teams (Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Kings, Spurs and Suns). "What is it about the Forum?" he asked, running his fingers through a thatch of blond hair after Game 2. "I don't know. Maybe it's haunted."